Focus on the Tuscan Coast

The wines of the Tuscan coast have become world-famous and much sought after over the past 30 years, but that fame has been mainly due to the reputation achieved by the best cabernet- and merlot-based wines made in the Bolgheri area. The good news for wine lovers is that in recent years many other wines made along the coast have greatly improved, and the area now offers an interesting combination of superlative super-premium reds, interesting and fresh whites meant for early drinking, and wonderfully juicy and less expensive reds that are very food-flexible. The discovery that high-quality syrahs and cabernet francs can be made here has further stimulated interest in the area.

The most successful white wines of the Tuscan coast are undoubtedly those made with the native grape varieties vermentino and ansonica. The former is also found in Sardinia and Liguria, but versions from the Tuscan coast tend to be more immediately fruity and citrussy, with delicate herbal and mineral qualities. Ansonica is a tannic, low-acid variety that is also found in Sicily (where it is called inzolia), but there is no doubt that the generally cooler Tuscan coast is a better location for this variety, which gives a slightly fuller-bodied white wine than vermentino. Both of these wines are best consumed within a year or two of the vintage (especially vermentino). On the other hand, white wines made on the Tuscan coast from international grape varieties like chardonnay and viognier are generally disappointing, and I don’t recommend them at all.

Inexpensive reds such as Morellino di Scansano have never been better, and they are remarkably flexible at the dinner table. Though there are some impressive single-vineyard or Riserva selections that carry considerable weight and structure, Morellino generally offers a light, fruity alternative to the many other reds made in Tuscany. Indeed, the wealthy Italians who vacation in the posh Argentario seaside area of the Tuscan coast have made a habit of drinking Morellino slightly chilled and marrying it even to hearty fish dishes. Morellino is an altogether different sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany. This is because the Maremma area of Tuscany, in the southern part of the Tuscan coast, is much warmer than any other part of the coast (or the rest of Tuscany, for that matter), which allows sangiovese to achieve maximum ripeness—in some years too much. Morellino also benefits from the inclusion of large percentages of alicante bouschet, a strongly perfumed variety that adds intense notes of ripe fruit, perfumed flowers and even grape-flavored bubble gum, giving these wines an effusively soft, fruity appeal. The result is a much richer, riper, higher-pH style of sangiovese-based wine that ought to be completely different from Chianti or other Tuscan reds. The fact that many Chiantis and other Tuscan reds end up resembling these ripe wines from the Maremma is a whole other, unfortunate matter.

But there is no doubt that what put the Tuscan coast on the map in the first place, and the reason the region generates so much excitement among wine lovers, is the greatness of wines such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and many others made from international red varieties. Further stimulating interest in the area today is the realization that the northern part of the Tuscan coast, in and around Bolgheri, is an amazing terroir for cabernet franc; world-class examples are increasingly being produced here. These wines are much fleshier and richer than cabernet franc wines from the Loire, and the best of them showcase spectacularly perfumed, intoxicating scents of violet, strawberry and white pepper. Syrah has also taken a shine to the warm climate of the area, and more and more fine examples of the variety are now being produced. As these vines are still mostly on the young side, it may be too early to conclude that this region will produce truly outstanding syrahs, but there are already many promising examples to pick from. My view is that the Tuscan coast version of syrah might one day more closely resemble the style typically associated with Australia (creamier in texture, fleshy and higher in alcohol) than the wines of the northern Rhône Valley.

This report covers the wines of the Tuscan coast from the most recent vintages, and also features notes on a few estates located in the more inland Tuscan areas of Montecucco and Cortona, which should have been part of the previous Tuscany report. They are included here because some wine samples arrived too late to meet the deadline for the last issue. Cortona is an up-and-coming area for syrah in Italy, even if these wines offer a different interpretation of the variety than do examples from Australia or the Rhône Valley, reflecting the radical differences in climate and soil here—for example, there’s little or no granite at Cortona. Cortona also holds out promise for merlot. The Montecucco area is located next to Montalcino (which means it’s only an hour’s drive from the Tuscan coast) and it’s rapidly establishing a reputation for high-quality sangiovese.

Recent vintages on the Tuscan coast. The 2009 vintage began inauspiciously, with heavy springtime rainfall and low temperatures leading to considerable disease pressure. It was thus essential to intervene promptly in the vineyards to ward off oïdium and downy mildew, as well as to reduce the strong vegetative growth that had taken root. In this respect, the Tuscan coast area benefited greatly from marine breezes and good ventilation, as well as from its permeable soils, which allow for good drainage. Summer was regular up until August, when it turned suddenly and persistently very hot, leading to an earlier harvest than usual.

In the end, the harvest took place in ideal warm and dry conditions, with good day-night temperature fluctuations resulting in highly aromatic wines. Some vineyards were picked as late as mid-October—rather unusual in this part of Italy—attesting to the long, slow growing season. Overall, 2009 is a very good year, with excellent, freshly perfumed whites and what appear to be very promising reds.

Vintage 2008 was also marred by springtime rains. The year was also marked by notable climatic differences between the northern and southern sections of the area. In the north, weather conditions were spotty, with very different wines being made depending on rainfall totals and average temperatures. Though some bigger, fuller-bodied wines were made in the northern section in ’08, these wines will generally prove less structured and ageworthy than those of 2007. It was a totally different story in the southern part of the Tuscan coast, where after a wet spring the growing season turned hot and dry, ultimately yielding large-scaled wines that will equal those from very great vintages here such as 2006 and 2001.

The 2007 vintage, much maligned by some members of the press due to the perception that it was a hot growing season not unlike 2003, was actually quite different in some sections of the Tuscan coast than it was elsewhere in Italy. Here, temperatures were considerably cooler and there was adequate rainfall. It’s also a vintage characterized by low yields due to early-season hail. In general, the weather pattern was better in the southern section, with less of the torrid heat that characterized the north through July and early August. As a general rule, the best wines display a soft, fruity charm and offer early accessibility, especially compared to the better wines of 2006.

Last but not least, the 2006 harvest offers a bevy of very fine wines, but it is not the across-the-board success that some members of the press might lead you to believe. The vintage was especially successful in the southern part of the Tuscan coast around Suvereto, which enjoyed a very regular growing season. But the extremely dry summer in the northern Tuscan coast section around Bolgheri caused problems for some wineries. Where vines were affected by heat stress and blocked physiological growth, they frequently produced wines with rough tannins and an unrefined character. But the best wines of 2006, thanks to cooler microclimates such as that of Sassicaia, are memorable.

All of the wines reviewed in this article were tasted in Italy during the June through August period.

Rome-based Ian D’'Agata has been writing and lecturing about wine for more than 20 years and is currently the director of the International Wine Academy of Rome. Among his writing credits, he has written parts of several editions of Gambero Rosso'’s Italian wine guide and has co-authored a number of wine books, including one on Italy's native grape varieties. D’'Agata’'s in-depth reports on the wines of Southern Italy, Northeast Italy and the Tuscan Coast have appeared in past issues of the International Wine Cellar.